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Egypt silences ex-leader with soundproof box for court appearance

By Amina Ismail
McClatchy Foreign Staff

CAIRO Former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi appeared in a Cairo courtroom Tuesday to face charges that he escaped prison in 2011. But the man who’d been the first democratically elected president in the country’s history was confined in a soundproof glass booth, and authorities made major efforts to ensure that whatever he said during his brief appearance went largely unheard.

State television offered no live broadcast, instead providing a heavily edited 30-minute video of the session that fast-forwarded through most of Morsi’s appearances.

The episode was another indication that Egypt’s current government, installed by the military after it toppled Morsi last July, intends to keep trying to make sure that no space is provided for Morsi or his supporters from the Muslim Brotherhood to press their cases with the Egyptian people, amid signs that the military plans to maintain its influence.

On Monday, the government announced that the country’s current strongman, Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, had been promoted to the rank of field marshal, the equivalent of a five-star general in the United States. The move is generally thought to be a signal that el-Sissi soon will declare himself a candidate for president. Only seven Egyptians have held the field marshal rank since Egypt declared independence in 1952, and Sissi is the only one to hold it without fighting a war.

On Tuesday, the scene in the courtroom was far different from Morsi’s first court appearance in November.

This time, instead of a suit without a tie, Morsi wore a white prison jumpsuit. He was kept separate from his fellow defendants, who’d welcomed him with cheers and applause during the November appearance. The once-boisterous and sometimes violent Morsi supporters who’d protested outside the court in November were notably absent, a visible sign of the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood, thousands of whose members have been arrested since Morsi was ousted.

There were no Morsi supporters in the court, and many journalists who’d applied to cover the trial were denied access.

The session itself barely advanced the process, as the judge adjourned the trial until Feb. 22 to give lawyers more time to the study the case, according to state media.

The limited footage displayed on state TV captured a defiant Morsi. “Who are you? Tell me,” he was shown yelling at the judge. “Do you know where I am?”

“The head of the Criminal Court,” the judge replied.

Morsi, known as Defendant No. 84, paced nervously in the glass-encased metal cage.

Morsi is one of 131 people who face charges in the 2011 jailbreak, which took place during the 18 days of upheaval that ended with the resignation of Hosni Mubarak from the presidency. Only 19 of those charged have been arrested, and those who were in court, in a separate cage from Morsi, appeared to be uncooperative, shouting “void, void” when the prosecutor called out their names.

Morsi was flown to Cairo’s Police Academy for the court hearing from the Borg El Arab prison in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.

In addition to escape, Morsi and his fellow defendants are charged with espionage and with killing guards and other prisoners during their escape. “They have collaborated with Hamas, Lebanon Hezbollah, jihadists and the international Muslim Brotherhood organization to bring down the Egyptian state and its institutions,” the prosecutor read from the list of charges.

Separately, a Cairo appeals court on Tuesday ordered Morsi to stand trial Feb. 16 on allegations that he’d collaborated with Hamas, Hezbollah and other extremist organizations to commit terrorist acts in Egypt. He also faces charges of insulting the judiciary.

If he’s convicted of the more serious charges, Morsi could be sentenced to death.

His court appearance came on the third anniversary of the “Friday of anger,” one of the fiercest days in the 2011 uprising, which saw police withdrawn from the streets and prisons opened and, in many cases, burned down.

As the court session was taking place Tuesday, two masked men shot a top police official dead in Giza, near the Pyramids, and one police officer was killed and another injured in an attack on Virgin Mary Coptic Church in the October 6 district, the government-owned newspaper Al-Ahram reported on its website.

Another website, Mada Masr, reported that the Giza shooting of Gen. Mohamed Saeed, head of the Interior Ministry’s technical office, had been claimed by a Sinai-based group, Ansar Beit al Maqdis, a radical Islamist militant group based in Sinai.

In a statement circulated on Twitter and Facebook, the group also threatened el-Sissi, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim “and their assistants” with “revenge heading their way.”

According to the Interior Ministry, Saeed was shot twice by two men on a motorcycle.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis also claimed responsibility for a series of bombings that killed five people in Cairo last week and claimed that it shot down an Egyptian military helicopter with a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile over the Sinai on Saturday.

Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @AminaIsmail
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